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When Teaching the Right Answers Is the Wrong Direction

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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"Is this right?" Admittedly, I flinch a little when I hear these words from a student. Why? They always serve as a reminder of the wrong turn education has taken. (Or maybe it's always been like this.) It's not their fault, but students are all too often on a quest for the Correct Answers, which has little to do with critical-thinking development, I'm afraid.

Our schools are about competition, merits, awards, and how to earn the Golden Ticket -- giving the right answers. And this focus often starts as early as kindergarten. We teachers want to support all answers, all the "best thinking" of all children, but we give ourselves away when we nod, glow, and beam when a student says exactly what we want her to say. We even hint at that perfect response. But is she really learning? (Can you picture this happening in your classroom? Guilty as charged over here.)

According to this article from Scientific American, studies show that getting answers wrong actually helps students learn.

So, how do we break those know-it-all routines?

Become an Explorer with Students

Step off the soapbox, tone down that direct teaching, and become wondrous and inquisitive right along side your students. Take a break from what you are expert at and delve into unknown territory with new content, activities, or a concept. Here are ways to get started:

  • Begin and end a lesson, unit, or project with an essential question or two. These are overarching questions that do not have a definitive answer -- for example, "How am I connected to those in the past?" Essential questions are also open ended, highly subjective, and often provocative. (Read education researcher Grant Wiggins's descriptions and examples of essential questions.)
  • Take every opportunity to express to your students that you have no idea about an answer, even if you have to fake it a little. (Teaching is part theater, after all). Show them that you are equally puzzled. Model inquiry by using the think-aloud strategy as you do a class reading of a current science article, or a poem, or as you collectively admire a painting from the Harlem Renaissance.
  • Dwindle down those teacher sentences that start with "This means" and replace them with, "I wonder," "What if," and "How might?" And, most importantly, begin asking your students this crucial question often, even multiple times in a day: "What do you think?" (For more on framing open-ended questions and exploratory classroom language, try this book.)
  • Give students plenty of think time. When you stop rushing, students may seem a bit shocked and may even believe it to be some sort of trick or hidden tactic. Wait, push that Pause button, and count the seconds -- whatever it takes. Can you say "uncomfortable"? Students are not accustomed to this exaggerated amount of time, but studies show that giving students an added handful of seconds after a question can reap much richer responses.
  • Be mindful of your tone. Try replacing a flat, authoritative, expert-sounding one with -- and this might sound corny -- a singsong intonation, the one we use when we are whimsically curious.
  • Make your classroom a place of wonderment. When a student asks a question that provokes a discussion, elicits a slew of fiery rebuttals, or brings about even more questions, give her a sticky note to write the question and her name on and put it on display, maybe on the "Questions That Rock" wall.

(All of the above suggestions are also sure to help lower the affective filter of the struggling students in your classroom.)

A Constructivist Classroom

For those out there already forming a response to this post about the woes of constructivist teaching methods, I'd like to point out a few things:

Teachers are known control freaks. We have to be. Anyone who is not a teacher out there, try to summon the attention of 32 seventh graders the day after Halloween and loads of candy, or teach a lesson on how to properly format a bibliography page to a group of students two weeks before high school graduation. What I'm proposing is that you channel all that controlling energy and put it at the beginning and end of a lesson.

This means that you do indeed have goals and objectives solidified in your mind and in your lesson-planning books. With clear objectives (the beginning) and enriching, rigorous assessments (the end) decided on and designed, constructivism just proposes you do something different in the middle.

You know the saying "The devil is in the details"? Well, the devil is also in the misunderstood. This method of teaching sometimes gets a bad rap because learning objectives and assessments are flimsy, or even missing.

How about it? Step down, stand next to students, and take a journey. You are still leading the pack, just relaxing your grip.

Down with Drill and Kill

You will start to see students slowly -- often painfully so, at first -- begin to become questioners and openly, vulnerably curious. The almost robotic, knee-jerk quest for the correct answers will begin to vaporize from your classroom.

And, students will see questioning out loud as not so much an admittance of not having the right answers as a declaration that they are admirably curious -- a learner, full of ideas, hypotheses, and reflections. They will begin to see that they -- just like their teacher -- are explorers of knowledge and ideas.

What are some ways you've inspired students to speak their minds and question freely in your classroom? We look forward to your comments!

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Comments (33)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

ashleyp's picture

I agree totally with all the posts. It is a shame that students, as well as, some teachers and administrators are so caught up in getting the right answer that they sometimes forget that it is not the answer you are looking for, but how you came to get it that matters.I have a student that is so afraid she will make a mistake that she panics when the problem calls for a little more effort than she is used to. Students should not feel the extreme pressures we put on them to get a perfect score. As a teacher, I am much more interested in the manner in which students are able to solve a problem.

I believe tests are not an accurate measure of student success. I have witnessed teachers handing out previous tests and drilling students over the correct answers. Because so much attention has been placed on teacher accountability, teachers desert to spoon feeding the tests to their students, just to get that perfect score.

Why can't getting the wrong answer be the right way to teach? Why do teachers not applaude the efforts put forth by their students? When a student gets an incorrect answer this is the perfect opportunity to teach what went wrong and then steer them back on track. I believe this approach would increase student learning and participation.

Jennifer Huff's picture
Jennifer Huff
High school special education teacher

I agree with your lesson on having students journal their thoughts. I have students journal at least two times a week by responding to an open ended question. I enjoy reading their creative writing expressing their unique thoughts. I emphasize on no right or wrong answers, but I expect some depth on their papers. I strongly encourage students to be creative in a collaborative learning environment. I feel that this enhances students to be self motivated and creative thinkers!

Stefanie H's picture

I have taught in my classroom in a constructivist manner and my students grew by leaps and bounds because of it. I would still get the "is this right?" question, but when they realized that I would not answer that question, it soon faded.

Stefanie H's picture

I have always encouraged my students to speak their minds in my class. I've even let them explore their thoughts and opinions openly with each other. The constructivist approach to learning is, in my opinion, a great way to reach so many different students and address their different learning styles in doing so.

Amanda Ernst's picture

This is a great post. It is all too true that as teachers and students, it is the easiest thing to give and expect the correct answers from our students. With standardized tests, that seems to be all that students need to know, the straight facts. We are missing the underlying theme of getting an education, gaining an understanding of a concept as a whole and being able to infer answers to questions from our previous knowledge. I have always been taught to use open-ended questions when trying to get the higher Bloom's learning, but I think that it is possible to use with the lower levels as well. Students of all abilities are capable of using open-ended questions. I also love the "Questions that Rock" wall idea. This is something that I will want to use in the future when I get my classroom (I am currently substituting). There are many strategies that I think that I am capable of using at the moment, I just have to be mindful when to best implement them.

Angela Jones's picture

Sometimes, educators often search for right answers as a way to evaluate their teaching skills. We feel if the students get the answer right then we have taught an effective lesson. The weight of producing passing test scores contributes to the anxiety of hearing the right answer. This is a topic my school district needs to read and pass on to every educator.

shane Cozart's picture

I thought about the comment that teachers are control freaks. Personally, I feel that all teacher have to have a certain amount of control at all times. Otherwise,you will have kids running your classroom. And there will be no control...

Kirsten Olson's picture

I too really enjoyed this post, will recommend it to others and loved all the comments and suggestions from other thoughtful, deep thinking and challenging teachers. If more teachers were instructing like all the posters here, I think the landscape of American education (and in Abu Dhabi) would look totally different.

Kirsten (author of Wounded By School, 2009)

Davì Pizota's picture

It may come as a surprise, but the true centre of education is the student, he who will learn. The teacher thing is pure XIV century dogmatistics (to help the Vatican in its feudal control). Try it. DP

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